The length of a guitar cable to the amp would, on the face of it, seem completely unimportant. It couldn’t affect your tone.. right?
Well actually that’s wrong. Believe it or not but the guitar cable length does have an impact on tone. A longer cable means the signal of your guitar will face some resistance as it passes along it and this affects the tone, making it muddier than it would be.
If you’re interested in learning more about how a cable length matters we will look at how a guitar cable works, discuss the common belief that cable length affects tone, I’ll go through my own small test as well as offering tips for choosing the right cable length for your needs.
What is the Guitar Cable Length?
It may sound like a silly question but before we get into whether cable length affects tone let’s just make sure we’re all on the same page about what cable length is. Put simply cable length refers to the distance between your guitar and your amp.
Cable length is usually measured in feet or meters and can range from a few feet to, well, a whole lot more! Many, many feet if you need it.
The length of your cable is determined by how far away you are from your amp. If you’re playing in your bedroom you’ll only need a small/short cable whereas if you’re playing on a huge stage your cable is likely to be much longer.
But why does cable length matter in the first place? Well the longer your cable, the more resistance it has, and this resistance can cause a loss of high-end frequencies which will ultimately affect your tone.
How Does a Guitar Cable Work?
Okay, so we know what cable length is, but how does a guitar cable actually work? Well, at its core a guitar cable is a long, cylindrical wire that’s made up of a few different parts.
At one end you have a plug that connects to your guitar through the input jack and at the other end you have a plug that connects to your amp via the socket. Virtually all guitar cables aren’t directional and both ends are the same and interchangeable. So you can plug either end into the amp or guitar.
Inside the cable you’ll find a couple of conductors that carry the electrical signal from your guitar to your amp. You’ll also find a layer of insulation that helps protect the conductors from interference and a layer of shielding that helps protect the cable from outside interference.
So when you play your guitar the electrical signal travels from your pickups to the cable, through the cable and then into your amp. As that signal travels through the cable it encounters a certain amount of resistance, and it’s that resistance that can impact the tone.
And so the longer the cable, the more resistance there is, and this can lead to a loss of high-end frequencies (as mentioned earlier).
But cable length isn’t the only factor that impacts resistance. The cable’s capacitance, which is its ability to store electrical charge, also affects it. Higher capacitance can cause high-end roll-off and a loss of brightness in the tone. So while cable length is definitely an important factor to consider, it’s not the only one.
Does Cable Length Affect Guitar Tone?
So let’s tackle to the big question: does cable length actually affect guitar tone? The short answer is yes, it can. As mentioned earlier, the longer your cable, the more resistance it has, which can cause a loss of high-end frequencies. This can make your tone sound duller or muddier than it should be.
But, here’s the thing: while there is an impact on tone due to the cable length, most of us won’t actually notice it.
For example, if you’re playing at low volumes then the impact of cable length on your tone is going to be so small you won’t be able to tell. But if you’re playing at high volumes then the change in tone may be more noticeable.
And of course the quality of your cable will also play a role in how good or bad your tone sounds. A higher quality cable with better shielding and lower capacitance may be less affected by cable length than a lower quality cable.
All of that is before you get to personal preferences and the fact that what sounds like a dull and lifeless guitar tone to one person might sound perfectly fine to another. As with so much in the music world it’s very subjective.
So, yes, cable length can impact your tone, but the extent to which it does so depends on a variety of factors. In the end you’re probably better off focusing on finding the right balance between tone and practicality.
Don’t obsess over cable length and make your life awkward by trying to get the perfect size of cable. It’ll probably make only a small difference at the most.
With that said, there are some practical tips you can follow to help reduce the potential impact of cable length on your tone and we’ll explore those in the next section.
Other Factors that Affect Guitar Tone
There are loads of other factors that play a role in your sound other than cable length though. In a lot of cases they will have a much greater affect too, so it’s worth looking at these before your cable if you’re having issues with your tone.
- Pickups: the pickups in any guitar are one of the major parts of what the tone from it will sound like. From the obvious differences in the regular pickup types – single-coils, humbuckers and P-90s – to the individual pickup brands and models, which you use is going to have a huge role in your sound. There’s also the smaller changes you can make like position and height of the pickups that will tweak that tone even further.
- Amps: as important as pickups, which amplifier you use will probably be the single biggest factor to your tone. Different types of amps like tube and solid-state produce very different sounds. On top of that the settings on your amp, such as gain and the EQ allow you to shape your tone considerably.
- Effects: effects pedals such as distortion, chorus, reverb etc. allow you to produce different tonal characteristics and shape how you sound. The order in which you stack your effects can also impact your sound.
- Playing style: lastly it’s important to remember that your playing style can also really affect tone. Think about things like how hard you play, dynamics, the techniques you use etc.
What’s the Right Length of Cable?
It mostly comes down to personal preference but a 10-20 feet cable is a good starting point. This sort of length should be the best of both worlds in that it gives you freedom to move on stage and offers minimal signal loss. Any cable length more than 20 feet could cause a drop in high-end frequencies and lead to a duller tone.
But as we’ve covered shorter cables reduce potential signal loss and so certain guitarists prefer their cables to be as short as possible. Guitar legend Joe Satriani had this to say about cable length:
“With rare exceptions, shorter cables do the trick because the signal doesn’t have to travel as far, so there isn’t the same amount of frequency loss. You can test this easily: Go get a Telecaster and a Vibrolux. Take a two-foot cable, a three-foot cable and one that’s 40 feet long. You’ll be able to tell which cable works best pretty quickly.
Well, I can’t jump into the audience with an eight-foot cable so I should get the 40-foot one, just remember that the longer cable is going to affect your sound a lot more. Bigger isn’t always better. And longer isn’t either” – Joe Satriani
Over the years I’ve accumulated quite a few cables of varying lengths. And I’d never really considered whether different those lengths were having any affect on my tone. So I did a mini experiment.
I took the longest cable I had, about 30 ft, and my shortest, which was 3 ft, and did a comparison. Now this was only in my front room and so obviously the volume had to be kept low but I couldn’t hear any real difference.
I was worried that knowing the longer cable should have sounded worse would influence me but the reality was wouldn’t have been able to tell them apart.
Clearly this was extremely unscientific and so I understand if you’d want to disregard it. But it’s something you can easily try yourself, be it when playing live or just in your home. And it would be a good way to rule it in or out as a cause of poor tone if you suspect it might be.
If you have tried something similar but had different results to me I’d love to hear.
Cable Length Final Thoughts
So while cable length is something to consider when it comes to your guitar tone it’s really only one piece of the puzzle. It’s worth noting that the effect of cable length on sound quality may be more noticeable in certain situations. If you’re playing large venues and at high volume then a longer cable and the effect it has will show up more.
So if you’re a bedroom player or just jamming with friends your needs and expectations are probably going to be a lot lower than a professional playing huge stadiums.
If cable length is something you’re looking at though try to pay attention to all of the factors that can impact tone. In the end you might decide that the length of your cable is nothing more than a distraction and there are far more important things you can focus on changing to make yourself sound better.